France's first female astronaut and ESA senior advisor to the director general Claudie Haigneré is pictured speaking at St George's International School on 31 January 2020
Photo: Matic Zorman
France’s first female astronaut Claudie Haigneré, 62, wants no-one left behind when it comes to advances in space. But, 20 years after her last mission, the challenges of bringing everyone onboard are changing.
Claudie Haigneré’s enduring passion for space is evident in her stamina. When I meet her at St George’s International School on 31 January, she has been giving talks for almost five hours. “You focus on different things,” she tells me, adding: “Before lunch students were more interested in psychology, how the team prepares to live together. Just now, the students were more science-based. The younger ones were more interested in the magic of microgravity, like how to brush your teeth or wash your hair.”
The retired astronaut often gives these kinds of talks but if she receives the same questions over and over, she doesn’t let on. Patience is something Haigneré has learned from a career in the space sector. She was selected as one of seven candidates out of 1,000 for France’s space centre in 1985. “My first flight was in 1996, 11 years after my selection,” she explained during her last talk.
This commitment to speaking to the public comes from her drive to boost space literacy and nurture a critical mindset in future generations in this area.
“I find that in this 21st century, there is a lot of progress and discovery, which I find very exciting. However, to balance it out, I think we must develop a critical mindset in education, the possibility to say where we’re going, the ethical questions, questions of responsibility and transparency […] I’m enthusiastic about this progress if it’s accompanied by an empowerment.”
Another world view
In that respect Haigneré welcomes all questions, no matter how naive, because they remind space sector players to inform the public and make progress a collaborative experience.
Claudie Haigneré takes questions from students at St George's International School on 31 January 2020. Photo: Matic Zorman.
She recalls once being asked by an eight-year-old if there was an edge to the universe. “This shows we need to look beyond our skyline and because there are plenty of questions we get asked showing another world view.”
Haigneré says she is increasingly being challenged by young people about focusing on space when we can’t get things right on earth. “I find it’s a shame,” she said. “By looking from afar, we find new solutions.”
Haigneré says this kind of response is disheartening but puts it into context. “I find that today we’re in a world of mistrust. The genetic scissors, how to control AI, will we master it? There’s a lack of trust in mastering this power. When young people ask questions it’s because they distrust our capacity to control it,” she says.
One way to help ease this mistrust is to adjust how education systems view the skills required for space progress, by increasing the cross-overs between science and humanities in school curricula. “We should propose science and humanities so we can better reflect and better act.”
This would enhance understanding but also train talent for this new sector. As she said in her talk, space exploration doesn’t just require engineers and astronauts--it needs architects, diplomats, medical professionals like herself, cybersecurity, financial experts and legal specialists to solve the many challenges the sector faces.
“I find the field of activity in space is large,” Haigneré says. “Being an astronaut is great but there are plenty of other jobs [they can do] to make them the deciders of tomorrow, and not just the followers.”